UN Still Standing By Controversial Israel Report After Author Backtracks

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RICHARD GOLDSTONE
AP

GENEVA — The U.N.'s top human rights body that commissioned an investigation of Israel's 2009 incursion into Gaza will continue to treat it as a legitimate working document, even though the lead author has backtracked from some of the report's most damning allegations against Israel.

Israel has called for the report to be withdrawn after Richard Goldstone, a former South African judge and U.N. war crimes prosecutor, said in an op-ed piece that he was reconsidering the conclusion that Israel deliberately targeted civilians during the three-week offensive against Palestinian militant group Hamas.

A spokesman for the U.N. Human Rights Council said for the report to be withdrawn Goldstone would have to submit a formal request to the Geneva-based body, which he has not done.

"U.N. reports are not canceled on the basis of an op-ed in a newspaper," spokesman Cedric Sapey told The Associated Press.

Various resolutions passed by the Geneva-based council and the U.N. General Assembly in New York would also have to be repealed by those bodies, he said.

Last month, a majority of the Human Rights Council's 47 members voted to pass the report up to the General Assembly, recommending that it ask the powerful U.N. Security Council to submit it to prosecutors at the International Criminal Court.

Such a move is unlikely to pass the Security Council, where Israel's strongest ally, the United States, has a veto. But the mere suggestion of bringing war crimes charges against Israel has angered the government there.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet that Goldstone's article, published in The Washington Post over the weekend, was a rare instance "in which those who disseminate libels retract their libel."

"This leads us to call for the immediate cancellation of the Goldstone report," Netanyahu said.

Goldstone's decision to reconsider the conclusions of the report came as a surprise to at least one other member of the four-person panel that authored the document.

"I probably didn't expect to see the comments he made, to be honest," Desmond Travers told the AP in a telephone interview, adding he had not been consulted beforehand.

Travers, a former officer in the Irish Armed Forces and an expert on international criminal investigations, said he hadn't seen the Israeli investigative reports that prompted Goldstone to backtrack on parts of his conclusion, though he acknowledged it might be valid to do so.

"But the tenor of the report in its entirety, in my opinion, stands," Travers said.

Reached by email, Goldstone declined to be interviewed.

The Goldstone report, released in September 2009, concluded that both Israel and Hamas committed potential war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. The findings triggered outrage in Israel and a personal campaign against Goldstone – a respected South African Jewish jurist with close ties to Israel.

Israel attacked the Gaza Strip in an offensive known as "Operation Cast Lead" in response to years of almost daily rocket fire from the Gaza Strip at southern Israel.

Some 1,400 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, and 13 Israelis were killed during the campaign. Israel has blamed Hamas for the heavy civilian toll, saying the militant group staged attacks from heavily populated residential areas, as well as mosques and schools.

In his article, Goldstone lamented Israel's refusal to cooperate with the U.N. investigation.

"I regret that our fact-finding mission did not have such evidence explaining the circumstances in which we said civilians in Gaza were targeted, because it probably would have influenced our findings about intentionality and war crimes," he wrote.

Human rights groups said regardless of the intention, Israeli officers should still be held responsible for indiscriminately targeting areas where civilians were present.

"If investigations don't progress at the domestic level, then there is a need for international justice," said Julie de Rivero of New York-based Human Rights Watch.

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